By Nicole Balin
Most Americans may believe that COINTELPRO—when the FBI infiltrated civil rights era activists groups like The Black Panther Party and SNCC—is a thing of the past. But these days, Muslim-American communities are increasingly under surveillance by the FBI, including the use of informant provocateurs and spying. While statistics remain elusive, grass-roots activist organizations charge that surveillance practices have spiked. Furthermore, according to the LA chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the number of Muslims who have reported being contacted by law enforcement to gather information has skyrocketed over the past few years.
This type of surveillance is problematic, in part because targeting places of worship is unconstitutional. “Surveillance based just on religion or ethnicity infringes on people’s constitutionally protected rights to freedom of religion and association,” explains Nura Maznavi, a lawyer for Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco based legal advocacy group. “It’s been proven over and over that racial and religious profiling, instead of profiling based on criminality doesn’t work.”
Reports of FBI’s use of informants going awry continue to surface: There was the 2010 high profile case of the Portland teenager (dubbed the “Christmas Tree Bomber”) whose surveillance of local FBI is now being called into question by critics across the country because illegal entrapment may have been employed. There was the 2009 shooting death during an FBI raid of 53 year-old Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, a leader of a Sunni Islam group in Detroit. According to reports, agents were attempting to arrest Abdullah for conspiracy to sell stolen goods but after refusing to surrender to police, Abdullah was shot in his Dearborn Warehouse. The autopsy later showed that he had been shot 20 times, calling into question the use of force in the shooting. Muslim Advocates, together with the NAACP, recently wrote a letter to the Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern over the killing.
And in a story that sounds like a spy-thriller a 46 year-old Los Angeles fitness instructor—and convicted conman—Craig Monteilh was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Islamic Center of Irvine. When the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), alarmed by his talk of jihad and plans for a terrorist attack, reported him to Irvine police, the FBI quickly turned on Monteilh.
“This had a chilling effect on the Muslim community,” says Maznavi. “The FBI sent in someone with a criminal background to incite individuals in a place of worship. As a result people didn’t want to come to the mosque and pray.”
Dr. Amir Hussain, professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles agrees and says that the problem with moles and infiltration is that it creates a level of distrust between the police and the community. “The first line of defense for homegrown terrorists is the Muslim community.” Hussain adds, “It’s the Muslims who can see and report criminal behavior in these communities.”
So is the COINTELPRO of the 60s a fair comparison? Maznavi insists yes, adding that many of the protections that were put in place after the 1960s surveillance abuses have been eroded since 9/11, specifically since the 2001 Patriot Act. Among other things, the 2001 law allows for law enforcement to search telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and other records without probable cause. Says Maznavi, “It’s actually worse now because the government can monitor groups without evidence of wrong-doing.”